March 15, 2009
He's no longer in Houston, but Tim Purpura remains a key figure in Astros' history. Currently the Executive Vice President and COO of Minor League Baseball, he joined the Astros' organization in 1994. He served as the club's Director of Player Development from 1997-2004, and as its General Manager from 2005-2007. Purpura, who sat on the baseball analytics panel at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference, later reflected on his time with the Astros, including the importance of 2005, the managerial styles of Jimy Williams and Phil Garner, and the legacies of Craig Biggio and Roger Clemens.
David Laurila: How do you view your time in Houston?
Tim Purpura: It was a great experience. To spend 14 seasons with one organization is somewhat of a rarity these days, and to be able to progress from an assistant director in a minor league office-basically the guy who paid the bills, filled out the forms, and took care of the player travel-to become a general manager and get to the World Series, well, that's a pretty amazing progression in a career. And certainly, when you're in this game your ultimate goal is to get to the World Series, and we were able to do that. My biggest regret is that we didn't win the World Series, which we missed doing by six aggregate runs. But no, it was a great time. It was a great period of my life and it really has prepared me for my life in baseball.
DL: Just how good were the 2005 Houston Astros?
TP: You know, the team was probably underrated in a lot of ways. There weren't the big household names that you might expect. Instead it was a guy like Jason Lane coming in and having a big effect on that team, or a Morgan Ensberg. But we also had Roy Oswalt; we had Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, so from a pitching point of view I think we were pretty dominant. And despite how his time in Houston ended, I'm still a big believer in Brad Lidge, who has obviously proven himself now with the Phillies. You know, with baseball teams, you've got to have a group of nine guys, plus your pitching staff, to win baseball games. That's the end-game question: Are you winning baseball games, moving forward, and getting into the playoffs? The 2005 team did that.
DL: What were the most important decisions you made in your tenure as Astros' GM?
TP: One was keeping the '05 team together. At a point, mid season, there was a lot of pressure from the media and the fans to kind of blow it up and start all over again. We thought we were better than we were playing, and we had confidence in our players and their abilities. That was a key decision that we made. [Editor's note: The 2005 Astros went 15-30 over their first 45 games.]
Certainly, while some of the drafts we had weren't what we would have liked, I truly believe that we had a player development system in place-with the type of people we had in our player development organization, and the type of minor league affiliates we had-that over the term of years we certainly did produce a lot of good players. Not only the Berkmans and Oswalts, but also the Freddy Garcias, the Johan Santanas, and players like that. Through the course of years we were able to develop them and get them to the big leagues, and some of them are stars today.
DL: Can you address any decisions that most fans aren't aware of, such as trades that didn't happen, or free-agent signings that almost, but weren't, consummated?
TP: You know, it's really hard now to keep anything secret. Most of what you do in a baseball organization becomes public knowledge in one way or another. But one of the biggest regrets that I have is that we weren't able to sign Carlos Beltran, after '04, when he went to the Mets. It came down to literally minutes before the decision was made by Carlos and his agent, Scott Boras. That's a big regret, and I often replay that scenario in my mind, thinking, "How could we have gotten that done?" But you never really know what the other side is thinking. That's one thing that probably remains a mystery to fans, and it remains a mystery to me.
DL: Having an extensive background in player development, how did you view the decision of Astros' management to try to compete, rather than rebuild, last season?
TP: The environment in Houston, and I believe that it is an after-effect of our success in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and especially getting to the World Series, is that the expectation is that you win every year. I think that comes from ownership, it comes from our fans, and it comes from the media. And sometimes you do have to retrench; sometimes you do have to step back and restock, rebuild, and do some things. That is certainly something we talked about, so there is a time when you need to do that. It was not, at that point, a decision that ownership and management was willing to make, and I certainly have to respect their decision. But I also think that sometimes, if you don't retrench and rebuild, it just causes a longer-lasting effect on your ability to really rebuild your organization.
DL: While you were with the organization, the managerial position went from Larry Dierker to Jimy Williams to Phil Garner. What did each of them bring to the table?
TP: Well, it's interesting. Larry Dierker was somewhat of a surprise to everyone. He had been in the radio booth, he had never coached, and he had never managed. But he was very bright when it came to game management; he was very statistically oriented, and he really understood the game. He understood players, and he really understood pitching. So after an initial breaking-in period, I think that everybody got comfortable with Larry and liked playing for him. But he was very pitching oriented.
DL: How about Jimy Williams?
TP: For a lot of people, Jimy Williams was a breath of fresh air, because he's a tried-and-true baseball man who had been through the wars. I would say that to this day, he's one of the best teachers I've ever been around in the game. He put players first, he communicated extremely well with players, he did everything he could to make players more comfortable. But he also challenged them. There are some players today-I look at a guy like Eric Bruntlett, who was a utility guy for us. Jimy Williams made him into a much better utility guy. Jimy would challenge players to get better and to expand their skills.
DL: What about Phil Garner?
TP: Phil, I think, is one of the best managers I've ever been around. In large part, that is probably because I was working in a different role. I was the general manager at that point, he was the field manager, and we worked very well together. I think that we both have inquisitive minds. We kind of like to delve beneath the surface of a lot of things. He understood the concerns and issues I had, and I tried to understand his. I think that we had an exceptional working relationship, and I consider Phil to be a good friend.
DL: Can you elaborate on the concerns and issues you just referred to?
TP: The role of a general manager is to look at the big picture. It's not just to think about today or tomorrow, or next week or next month-it's to look at the long-term future of the organization. That includes draft picks, and the progression of a player through a minor league system, whereas a manager's job is to win today. That's all they care about, is to win today. So sometimes those things would be somewhat at odds, but never as a philosophical battle or anything like that. I think Phil understood why we would do some things in player development, maybe why I wouldn't bring a player up to the major leagues at a point where he thought they maybe could have helped. It's those types of things. But by the same token, I also understood that when we got shorted at the big-league level, when we needed somebody there, we were always very receptive and tried to get the players to him that he needed.
DL: Craig Biggio's performance waned late in his career, yet he continued to play on a regular basis. Can you address that?
TP: It's one of those things that you deal with as an organization. When you look at what Craig Biggio meant to the franchise and to the citizens of Houston, he is an icon figure in sports, to that town. Sometimes you make adjustments and allow for players like that. He was still a productive player to the end. He obviously got to 3,000 hits in his last year on the field. You adjust. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and sometimes you get yourself into a situation where you have to adjust around a position and do your best to win your game that day.
DL: Biggio switched defensive positions multiple times in his career. What was behind each move?
TP: The first change, from catcher to second baseman, was longevity-of-career oriented. He was clearly starting to establish himself as a fine offensive player, and while I wasn't there at the time, from what I understand the thought process was that catching might take too much of a toll on him, day to day, for him to continue the fine offensive aspects that he was developing. The second time, when he moved from second base to the outfield, was clearly based on what was kind of a bizarre, sudden availability of Jeff Kent. We didn't think, going into the offseason, that Jeff Kent would be available to us or have an interest in playing for us, but he and his agent made it very clear to us during the winter meetings that he actually had a strong interest in playing in Houston. That precipitated the change, and Craig took it, and dealt with it, and tried to make himself the best outfielder that he could. When Kent left, we happened to put Craig back at second, and that's where he ended his career, though he did play that one game at the end of the season in Houston, where he played all [three] of the positions. He went behind the plate, he played second, and he played the outfield.
DL: Brad Ausmus has long been a good defensive catcher who provides limited offensive production. What value has he brought to the organization?
TP: Pitchers love to throw to him. He's as bright a guy as I've ever met, and when you talk about statistical analysis, I think he can runs rings around a lot of people in the game with his understanding and knowledge of statistics. A lot of guys sit on planes, in between cities, listening to their iPods or watching movies, but Brad would be studying the charts for the opposition that was coming up. He'd be making his notes for the advance meetings. Typically, on a ballclub, the coaches do the advance meeting, or the manager, but with our ballclub it was Brad Ausmus. He ran the advance meetings; he got with the pitchers on the approaches we were going to take with opposing hitters. I think that when he's ready, he'll make an excellent major league manager. He's got a career beyond the playing field if he's interested.
DL: Do you feel that his defensive contributions have outweighed his offensive shortcomings?
TP: There's no doubt about it. His Gold Gloves, what he did working with pitching staffs, what he did to educate a pitching staff, certainly-well, I don't know if it outweighed his offensive shortcomings, because sometimes those were pretty severe, and you'd have to really swallow hard not to try to find an alternative. But I think he's served his purpose extremely well.
DL: Can you address the Roger Clemens situation?
TP: Well, I certainly feel bad for where he's at right now. I don't know what Roger was involved with; I don't know what he was not involved with. I guess that I tend to judge him based on my relationship with him as a player, and as a team leader, and I think he helped to put Houston baseball on the map with his leadership and the kind of person he was in the clubhouse. There was the way he treated people and his charitable work, so I really have nothing bad to say about Roger Clemens. He's the epitome of what you want to see in a baseball player from the performance side. Again, the other things-there's not a lot of data to prove one thing or another. But I do feel for him, I feel for his family and what he's going through, and I hope it all works out for him.
DL: Any final thoughts?
TP: As I said, I enjoyed my time in Houston; it was a big part of my life. The Houston Astros were important to me. Now I'm on a different journey in my life, and who knows where the next place will be.